Everything’s Divine

Staring at my CD shelves the other night, trying to choose something to listen to (a hopeless task, because every time I settle on one I fast-forward through it in my head, meaning I’ve effectively listened to it already and have to find another), I realised that my approach to new music has taken on an alarming dimension. Where once I would have heard a new song and, if I liked it, perhaps bought the album, now I hear a song and, if I like it, ruthlessly hunt down everything recorded by that band ever. Like a junkie upping his dose to get the same hit, it now takes the complete recorded works of James to scratch the itch of “Just Like Fred Astaire” (and four years down the track I’m bloody close, with only Strip-Mine and two live albums to go). I’ve gone from one listen of the Manic Street Preachers’ Everything Must Go to having only one more to go until everything; from hearing about the end of Elliott Smith’s life to hearing almost everything he ever released in it. From the collected works of Nick Drake in January, to collecting the latest from the Bluetones and Space in February (both excellent, by the way).

And then, last month, something on the web reminded me of the Eurovision episode of Father Ted, and the song “My Lovely Horse”. Seeing and hearing that clip for the first time was one of my favourite TV moments of the ’90s; damn funny, and damn fine music too, all ninety seconds of it. Now I knew the band behind the song, and had another name to pursue in the relentless quest for Everything: The Divine Comedy.

A month of searching later, I’ve got most of their back catalogue; and on Tuesday night saw them perform at Edinburgh’s Usher Hall.

The Divine Comedy
Tonight We Fly

The "them" is mostly a he, Neil Hannon, and it’s not surprising I hadn’t heard of his band back in Oz in the ’90s, because their first few albums sold only a handful of copies and their UK hits didn’t make it elsewhere. But his music mines an intriguing vein, with hints of 1920s Berlin, 1990s Britpop, Michael Nyman, Noel Coward, and (rather too obviously on 2001’s Regeneration) Radiohead. Not every song works, but those that do are infectious, and his lyrics are small masterpieces of comic observation and heartfelt directness.

The Usher Hall show was a sit-down affair with Hannon backed by a fifteen-piece orchestra, giving a rich, warm, full sound that sometimes swamped his vocals; the mixing improved in the second half, except then it was his guitar that got lost once or twice. Drowning out the lyrics was a shame, because some songs didn’t stand up without them, but when it all came together the effect was impressive. He played about half of the new album, Absent Friends, and a string of greatest hits from all the others bar Regeneration: “National Express”, “Generation Sex”, “Becoming More Like Alfie”.

I felt a bit out of place as the newcomer among these longstanding fans who really did know Everything; the guy in front of me was whooping and clapping like Graham Norton as Father Noel. But hey, I enjoyed the show-ending and -stopping “Tonight We Fly” as much as anyone, and was up on my feet with the rest of them for the encore of “Something for the Weekend”. (Partly because I wouldn’t have been able to see anything sitting down, but y’know.)

The biggest surprise of the evening was “The Booklovers” from Promenade. Instead of performing the original lyrics himself, Hannon introduced a guest to read extracts from one of their favourite books. “And because we’re in Scotland, we thought we’d get someone Scottish. So here, ladies and gentlemen, is Mister Billy Boyd.” Enter Scotland’s favourite halfling to read from “the first book I ever read—really!”: The Hobbit.

The Divine Comedy
Come Home, Billy Boyd: yes, that fuzzy blob really is him.

At times the show seemed a little low-key, but I suspect that was just the effect of sitting down throughout; in hindsight, it was an excellent run through the Hannon catalogue. Apart from the closing numbers of “Charmed Life”, “Tonight We Fly”, “Something for the Weekend” and “Sunrise”, my favourite had to be the one that’s been in my head the most this past month, “Songs of Love”. The first time I heard it, it seemed instantly familiar; I figured it was because Ben Folds covered it on one of his recent EPs.

Then, the day after the concert, I realised it was even more familiar than that: “Songs of Love”, in a twangy guitar version, is the theme song to Father Ted.

30 April 2004

Here’s what people said about this entry.

you saw a real live hobbit! duuuude!

the photos look lovely. sounds like it was a good night. would love to have heard national express.

Added by shauny on a Saturday in May.

hey there. i went through that "must have everything this band has EVER written down to their last shopping list" period in 2001, i've now got a belting CD collection and a huge household insurance excess! Glad you have found Nick Drake... and Div. Com. are truly good; their live gigs went down the pan (WAAAYYY down) during/just after Regeneration (Hannon disappeared up his own bottom, so to speak) but i hear good things now. I like the earlier stuff and have a lot of singles / live stuff, they really are fantastic. Agree that it loses something if you can't hear the lyrics, but agree with you - Tonight We Fly is def. a showstopper, with or without lyrics, a CORKER of a song, and you've now put it in my head so I will have to dig it out at home! Glad you caught a gig and glad you enjoyed it. Kudos on the Hobbit ;)

Now then, try these guys out:
www.goldenhorse.co.nz (awesome)
www.alexlloyd.com (you prob. know)
www.fourdayhombre.co.uk (promising)

jen x
ps the Finn brothers have an album coming out later this year and should be touring the UK. Yay!

Added by jen on a Tuesday in May.

Oh, and Belle & Sebastian. You must check them out if you haven't already - esp. albums 'Boy with the Arab Strap', and 'Fold Your Hands Child, You Walk Like a Peasant'. Awesome gig I saw in the Royal Albert Hall in London several years back, wonderful musicians..

Added by jen on a Tuesday in May.

Thanks, Jen. I've never really got into Alex Lloyd, and have heard a bit of Belle & Sebastian (hard not to in Scotland) but never really gone further... save 'em for later, maybe! Looking forward to the new Finn album, though.

Added by Rory on a Tuesday in May.

Set list, in the middle of a forum thread where all the fans seem to be hanging out:


Added by Rory on a Thursday in May.